My introduction to Bagan was Nyaung U market. We arrived in the morning, when it was buzzing with activity. At first I was mostly taking pictures of market scenes, mainly looking for interesting people with interesting backgrounds. No shortage of that at Nyaung U!
If anything there was such an abundance of amazing colour, texture and subjects it was difficult to make up my mind where to point the camera.
Even though Nyaung U is an outside market it's covered, so many areas are fairly dark, which makes photography a little challenging sometimes. But there are parts where the sun breaks through forming dramatic light beams.
Although I thought I was getting some good shots, I knew that something was missing. One of the reasons I decided to go on this trip was to force myself to shoot more portraits. Street portraits is something I've wanted to do more of for a long time, but walking up to someone I don't know and asking to take their portrait is something that doesn't come naturally to me. It’s an insecurity that I think a lot of photographers share. You are afraid of inconveniencing people, of being perceived like some random stranger (which, to be fair, I am) that is regarding them as something curious to snatch an image of.
I've always envied photographers that are able to take environmental portraits of strangers where they either are looking at the camera in a way that shows a connection with the photographer, or they are going about their business doing what they do, seemingly having forgotten that someone is right next to them with a camera.
Of course, there are those that will walk up to a person, shove a lens in their face, take the picture and just leave without a gesture or a word exchanged. In my opinion that’s just a way of objectifying people. I don't want to be one of those photographers. This is one of the reasons why I decided to go on a Within the Frame trip. I knew that their philosophy is to be respectful of the subjects and, when taking pictures of someone, try to make it more of a dialogue where the subject feels like he or she is getting something out of the exchange. Sometimes this may be quite literal, like buying something from an artisan you just took a picture of, but in my opinion it shouldn't feel so much like you are paying for the picture. People have a certain pride in what they do, and if you take a genuine interest in in someone’s craft they will generally be able to tell, and they will be more likely to welcome your interest when you lift your camera.
So after much hesitation I gathered enough courage to try to shoot my first portrait in the market. I saw one of the members of our group talking to an art seller, so I approached to take part in the conversation. She had a really interesting, beautiful face and bright inquisitive eyes so I immediately felt I wanted to shoot her portrait. But instead of just doing that, I put the camera aside and took a bit of time to talk to her. I asked about some beautiful little bowls she was selling. She told me about how they were made bamboo, about the process of lacquering them, and about her little family business where her brother would make them by hand and she would take them to the market to sell them.
I decided to buy a few of the bowls for some friends at home, but before leaving I asked if I could take her picture. At this point, if she had said she preferred me not to I would still have walked away with some cool little bowls, and having had a conversation with someone from an entirely different background and learning about them. In other words, the exchange had already been worth it, and a picture on top of it would just be a bonus. To me, that’s the way street portraits should be approached.
But, as luck would have it she agreed, so I was able to take my first portrait in Bagan! This armed me with a little more confidence for the next time.
On my way out of the market I stopped to buy some bananas to share with the rest of my group. The lady selling them was really interesting too and I thought I would love take her picture as well. I lifted my camera and asked "photo?". She said "ok", but I could immediately tell that she wasn't so happy with the idea. I didn't want to do it unless she was really ok with it, so for a moment I just thought of walking away. But then I decided to give it one more try and see if I could get her to change her mind. So I just raised my hand palm up towards her, in a “but look at you!” type of gesture and said "very beautiful!". This immediately cracked her up, and her friends around her all started laughing too. At that point I felt any reservations she may have had of having her picture taken had crumbled down, so I snapped a picture and managed to capture her expression in the middle of the laugh, which was wonderful.
This felt so much better than if I had stolen a picture from her when she wasn't really willing. Maybe this is what had happened to her before and that’s why she hadn't been so keen with having her picture taken at first.
I smiled, thanked her, said goodbye and walked away with the laughter of her and her friends still lingering behind me. So by the time I left Nyaung U I had met some new people from very different backgrounds and shared a few nice moments with them, I had taken some pictures to remind me of those moments, and I had some amazing little bamboo bowls and a bag full of delicious bananas. Not bad for a morning at the market!